Nadhim Zahawi: What heads and teachers need to know

Tes details the former vaccine minister's journey to becoming the new education secretary

Amy Gibbons

School funding and other key challenges: What we've learned from Nadhim Zahawi's first month as education secretary

Yesterday Nadhim Zahawi was named as the new education secretary – a somewhat surprise appointment after his beleaguered predecessor, Gavin Williamson, was shown the door.

Ministers tipped to be in the running for the role included former culture secretary Oliver Dowden (now co-party chairman) and Kemi Badenoch, who was made minister of state for levelling up and equalities in Boris Johnson's reshuffle.

Liz Truss, who was promoted from trade secretary to foreign secretary, was also rumoured to be ahead of Mr Zahawi in the line-up for the job.


But it was the minister in charge of the Covid vaccine rollout who was picked by the PM to head up the Department for Education. So, who is the man who has taken Mr Williamson's place?

Mr Zahawi has done well out of his management of the vaccine programme – attracting wide acclaim for the scheme that knocked criticism of the arguably embarrassing test and trace system into the long grass.

A senior government figure reportedly said back in February: "He's got the potential to be a Cabinet minister. He's very capable."

But what about his career prior to the pandemic?

Nadhim Zahawi: From Baghdad to Stratford-upon-Avon

Mr Zahawi was born Baghdad in 1967 to Kurdish parents who came to the UK when he was 9, fleeing Saddam Hussein's regime.

He grew up in Sussex and was privately educated at King's College School in West London before going on to study chemical engineering at University College London.

He first entered the political sphere in the mid-1990s as a Wandsworth councillor for West Putney, serving three terms from 1994 to 2006. He also unsuccessfully contested the Erith and Thamesmead parliamentary seat in 1997, which was won by Labour.

He went on to co-found the polling firm YouGov at the turn of the century. The company started off in his garden shed, and has since amassed more than 400 staff over three continents.

It wasn't until 2010 that Mr Zahawi stepped on to the main political stage, as MP for Stratford-on-Avon. Five years after that, he took on his first specialist education role as apprenticeship adviser to David Cameron.

Against off-rolling

In January 2018, he was made children and families minister in the DfE by then prime minister Theresa May. However, he soon found himself in hot water after it emerged that he had attended the infamous Presidents Club fundraiser – a men-only gala linked to allegations of sexual harassment. He claimed to have left early, but was reprimanded by the prime minister all the same.

Mr Zahawi survived the scandal, and went on to make his thoughts known on a number of key issues in the education world.

In 2018, he was quoted in a briefing paper as saying: "I want the message to go out from this hearing that it is unacceptable for schools to off-roll."

And a year later, he was pushing for funding to secure the future of nursery schools.

However, Mr Zahawi came up against more criticism around the same time over a "myth-busting" guide on child protection. The DfE withdrew the guide after a charity launched a legal challenge.

Also in 2019, he said he was "concerned" at the lack of awareness about guidance on how schools should deal with incidents of peer-on-peer sexual abuse.

In a letter to the Labour MP Emma Hardy, revealed by Tes, he admitted that the DfE had to do "further work" to "raise awareness" about the advice.

Covid and beyond

More recently, in October 2020, Mr Zahawi suffered a backlash over some controversial comments he made on free school meals during the Covid crisis. He said that poorer parents preferred to pay a "modest amount" of £1 or £2 for meals. "They didn't like the labelling of them being free," he told the BBC.

Just three years earlier, in 2017, Mr Zahawi was listed as the second richest MP in Britain based on income.

In terms of his parliamentary record, he has consistently voted in favour of academisation and greater autonomy for schools.

In his first statement as education secretary, released last night, Mr Zahawi said he was looking forward to working with the country's "amazing teachers and staff".

He acknowledged that pupils had been through a "tough time" over the course of the pandemic, and said he would be "listening to them and their families" as the government aims to "build back better and fairer".

The statement did not go into detail about Mr Zahawi's specific vision for education policy.

However, with both Mr Williamson and long-standing schools minister Nick Gibb now gone, it is likely Boris Johnson is envisaging a very different department under new leadership.

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Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @tweetsbyames

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